Prime Minister May’s Presidential Style

On 3 May 2017, British Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement outside Number 10 Downing Street to mark the start of the general election, for which Britons will go to the polls on 8 June.

The 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom has dissolved in accordance with the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011. The proclamation promulgated on 25 April 2017 merely recognizes that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act itself caused parliament to be dissolved and that Prime Minister May only advised the Queen to formally summon the next parliament:

“We in pursuance of section 2(7) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, on the advice of Our Prime Minister, do hereby appoint Thursday the 8th day of June 2017 as the polling day for the next parliamentary general election.”[1] 

The British Prime Minister and Queen no longer play any role in promulgating dissolution into force; only the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act itself now does so.

As May said, “I have just been to Buckingham Palace for an audience with Her Majesty the Queen to mark the dissolution of this parliament. The 2015 parliament is now at an end, and in 36 days, the country will elect a new government and choose the next prime minister.” (Yes, it goes without saying that we elect MPs, not governments.)

Prime Minister May maintained her stump speech and presented this election as a stark choice for British voters, declaring:

“The choice that the country faces now is very simple, because there are only two people who can possibly be prime minister after the 8th of June to negotiate Brexit. It is a choice between me and Jeremy Corbyn. With me, you will get strong and stable leadership and an approach to Brexit that locks in economic growth, jobs for our children, and strong finances for the NHS and the country’s schools. Or you will get Jeremy Corbyn with a hung parliament and a coalition of chaos. Britain will simply not get the right Brexit deal if we have the drift and division of a hung parliament, and so with Jeremy Corbyn negotiating Brexit, we would all pay a high price.”

May also spoke of herself in presidential, rather than prime ministerial, terms and clearly follows in the footsteps more of Thatcher and Blair than those of Major, Brown, and Cameron. May sees herself as a little more than primes inter pares, not so much as head of state but more like the head of the nation, or mother of the nation — all of which derogate from Her Majesty the Queen in one way or another. This tendency manifests itself in her statement. She never asked or aimed to persuade Britons to vote for the Conservative Party and never even uttered the word “Conservative”; instead, she asks Britons to vote for “her” and “her local candidates” because she has portrayed this early election from the outset as obtaining a strong mandate for Brexit negotiations more than anything. May therefore is appealing to all voters who want that the parliament and government execute the will of the people, as expressed in last year’s referendum — especially to those who voted Labour or UKIP in the last general election in 2015 and who voted in favour of Brexit in 2016:

“Every vote for me and my local candidates will be a vote to demonstrate that unity of purpose. Every vote for me and my local team will strengthen my hand when I negotiate for Britain in Europe. Every vote for me will mean that we can get on with delivering my plan for a stronger Britain.”

In effect, May wants to lead a Grand Coalition of all pro-Brexit voters — except that this coalition consists of only the Conservative Party.

Even Chretien and Harper, who were both accused by their critics during their respective premierships of being too autocratic, never described, as far as I can recall or have read, candidates or MPs of their parties as “my candidates.”

This is, of course, quite extraordinary and very unparliamentary. But Brexit has irrevocably altered the political landscape of the United Kingdom, and the standard left-right politics will not reassert themselves until at least the next general election (now scheduled for 2022 under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act) once the two-year process under Article 50 has run its course and the United Kingdom has finally seceded from the European Union, with whatever new arrangements that London can secure from Brussels. Last year’s referendum exposed the deep divisions between Labour and Conservative supporters versus the Labour and Conservative parties themselves.

Something else struck me about May’s speech. Namely, much of Prime Minister May’s campaign rhetoric and stump speech in 2017 bears a striking resemblance to those of Prime Minister Harper in 2011.

In the general federal election that spring, Harper described the campaign in stark terms as a choice between a “strong, stable, national majority Conservative government” or “Mr. Ignatieff and his coalition partners in the NDP and Bloc quebecois.”[2] Harper also noted that the Conservatives’ “priority will remain the security and stability for Canadians.” (Someone noted the similarity in wording between Harper’s statement in the foyer of the House of Commons to Emperor Palpatine’s speech to the Senate in Revenge of the Sith). Harper’s exhortation made sense coming off the heels of a minority parliament, but May’s similar plea for “strong and stable leadership” almost seems self-defeating, since the Conservatives already held a majority in the last parliament. And May’s anti-coalition rhetoric sounds especially hypocritical given that she served as Home Secretary in the Cameron-Clegg coalition of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats from 2010 to 2015!

The British press has portrayed this general election as a foregone conclusion. Even Tony Blair has stated that he expects the Conservatives to win a massive parliamentary majority against the resurgent Old Labour under its dour, ascetic Roundhead leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who demonstrates all the faults of a life-long socialist activist. Blair even pulled an Ujjal Dosanjh, who famously acknowledged his own imminent defeat in British Columbia’s provincial general election of 2001 and pleaded with British Columbians not to shut out the New Democrats completely from the legislative assembly.[3] Blair did the same and pleaded with British voters to elect a strong Labour opposition!

“I think that the real issue is blank cheque. It’s, ‘what mandate does she claim?’ both on Brexit […] and all the other things. And I think that the most powerful argument for Labour in this election — because of the way that the polls are […] on the leadership issue — is to say, ‘it’s important for our democracy that the government is held properly to account, and she needs a strong opposition.'”

I’m sure that many of you will also watch this election with great interest nevertheless.

May’s presidential style therefore manifests itself in this appeal where she presents herself as somehow being above normal partisan political divides, at least temporarily. It almost resembles something more like a French 5th Republic president, who holds himself above political parties, than even an American president. But as Blair implied in his comment about the necessity of a strong opposition in parliamentary systems, May’s attitude cannot last long, and it is even subversive to parliamentary responsible government over the long term.

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[1] United Kingdom, The Gazette: London Gazette, Proclamations: By the Queen Appointing Thursday the 8th Day of June 2017 as the Polling Day for the General Election of the Next Parliament,” (London: Crown Copyright, 25 April 2017), issue no. 61912, page number 8774.

[2] CBC News, “Government’s Defeat Sets Up An Election Call,” 25 March 2011.

[3] CBC Digital Archives, “The BC Liberal Party Campaign of 2001,” 14 May 2001. At 3:03, Dosanjh said: “People are looking for a change in government, and the [poll] numbers tell a story. And it’s important for me to recognize that so that we can have an honest dialogue with British Columbians, that there’s a danger of 79 Liberal MLAs being elected. That’s not good for democracy. “


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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